“In one respect a cavalry charge is very like ordinary life. So long as you are all right, firmly in your saddle, your horse in hand, and well armed, lots of enemies will give you wide berth. But as soon as you have lost a stirrup, have a rein cut, have dropped your weapon, are wounded, or your horse is wounded, then is the moment when from all quarters enemies rush upon you.”
One of the deciding marks of a great leader is the way he handles criticism. Leadership is, after all, a matter of things like standing for principle, exercising authority, marshaling resources, change, power—the very things most likely to invite criticism. The mettle of a leader is tested by the criticism he receives. He cannot afford to ignore it or become preoccupied with it. Nor can he allow a root of bitterness to set in that threatens to warp his judgment. Instead, he has to look fully into the criticism lodged against him, however harsh or unjust it may be, draw from it what wisdom he can, and move on.
Winston Churchill was the kind of man people loved to criticize. His ego and jaunty self-confidence, his rather strange appearance, his lisp, his explosive personality, and his unusual habits offered his critics a target too tempting to ignore. What really drew the barbs, though, was that Churchill was a man of resolute principle, for nothing draws opposition quite like the settled confidence that grows from knowing one is right.
Churchill assumed from the start that strong leaders automatically draw criticism: “People who are not prepared to do unpopular things and to defy clamor,” he said, “are not fit to be Ministers in times of stress.” He could handle his critics, though, as long as he was at peace with himself, as long as he knew he was doing the right thing: “The only guide to a man is his conscience,” he said upon the death of Neville Chamberlain, “the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and the sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honor.” Churchill walked with uncommon confidence because he walked as a man of conscience. Others may have taken it as arrogance when he said things like, “I have no intention of passing my remaining years in explaining or withdrawing anything I have said in the past, still less in apologizing for it,” but this is actually the boldness of a principled man.
That is not to say that Churchill refused to learn from the rebukes he incurred. “Criticism in the body politic,” he said, “is like pain in the human body. It is not pleasant, but where would the body be without it?” Though not quite like E. Stanley Jones in his attitude towards critics—”My critics are the unpaid guardians of my soul,” Jones said—Churchill was very much like Marcus Aurelius, who wrote in his Meditations, “When another blames or hates you, or when men say injurious things about you, approach their poor souls, penetrate within, and see what kind of men they are. You will discover that there is no reason to take trouble that these men have a good opinion of you. However, you must be well disposed towards them, for by nature they are friends.”
As a man of action, what really disturbed Churchill, was criticism by people who sat on the sidelines. “Criticism is easy,” he had said, “achievement is difficult.” Particularly during the war years, he endured incessant attacks from groups that refused to lift a finger in the cause. It inflamed him: “It is not open to the cool bystander . . . to set himself up as an impartial judge of events which would never have occurred had he outstretched a helping hand in time.” Churchill believed that the voice of criticism had to earn its way, that there are dues to be paid before winning the right to be heard. He had paid them. He expected others to, as well.
He was particularly disturbed when politicians went to ludicrous extremes to avoid the slings and arrows of taking a stand. He believed that the policies of appeasement, which he opposed so eloquently in the 1930’s, resulted not only from moral weakness and short-sightedness, but also from fear of offending a misguided public. Churchill believed leaders had to act according to their best instincts: “Nothing is more dangerous in wartime than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature.” But Churchill was also concerned about leaders who allowed public opinion to move them to action prematurely. He had seen “war fever” drive nations to destruction in the “Great War,” and he believed leaders ought to know better: “Let us learn our lessons. Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
Churchill was not immune to the pain of criticism. He spoke from experience when he said, “Politics is almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once; in politics many times.” But he knew that true leadership automatically generates criticism, that opposition is the natural environment of effective leaders, and that resisting extreme reaction to criticism is the key to steadiness at the helm. In fact, it seemed at times that Churchill used criticism as a kind of guidance system, that he took it as confirmation of a right course. Scripture says that a man is tested by the praise he receives. Churchill knew that criticism can be of equal value.
Taken from “The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill: Hero in a Time of Crisis” by Stephen Mansfield.